© 2018 SCER
There has been intense European media interest in the Scottish elections driven both by interest in whether Scotland may become independent and what it means if the UK does fragment. Key questions from a range of European media outlets have focused on whether the SNP and Greens would win the elections, when and how there might be a referendum, whether ‘yes’ would win, and how and whether an independent Scotland would re-join the EU.
This media spotlight will soon move on. There are many other priorities on the EU’s agenda and neither EU-UK relations nor the possibility of Scottish independence figure in those top priorities. This raises the question of Scotland’s European relations in the coming years, as the mounting damage from Brexit adds up, and with Scotland part of a third country outside the EU.
Continuing to maintain and develop strong and diverse relationships across the EU will be vital. This depends both on the Scottish government’s European strategy and too on the myriad of networks and relationships that continue to intertwine Scottish civil society with European society – including NGOs, business, cultural bodies, academia, think tanks and more.
Boris Johnson’s government continues with its ideological quest to define the UK as ‘global’ not European, its careless but deliberate pulling out of the Erasmus programme one clear indicator of this. Outside the EU, and in the face of this UK government, the Scottish government – and other groups – will need to work harder to build and keep constructive European relationships. But this can be done. The Welsh government has already taken steps to fund a replacement for the Erasmus scheme; surely Scotland must do the same.
The tortuous process of Brexit and the fractious and difficult relations between the EU and UK since 2016 have put Scotland in a positive light while leaving the UK’s reputation badly damaged. That Scotland voted 62% remain is well known across the EU. There is much sympathy, too, for Scotland leaving the EU when it didn’t choose to. And while, on the one hand, EU governments are not mostly hoping that the UK will fragment – it has been unstable and difficult enough in recent years – even so, if Scotland did vote for independence in 2023 say, there would certainly be a fair bit of schadenfreude, the sense that the UK had got its Brexit comeuppance.
The European media interest during the elections has prompted more analysis and consideration of when and how an independent Scotland might re-join the EU. The main lines of this are already well known: a legally and constitutionally independent Scotland could re-join the EU. Scotland would have to apply, go through an accession process (probably a rather swift one) and the EU27 have to decide unanimously to open talks and to finally agree on an accession treaty.
There are no short cuts in this process; we are not in 2014 when a ‘yes’ vote would have meant the UK was still in the EU and there was talk of an independent Scotland staying in a ‘holding pen’ inside the EU while it went through accession. But if a referendum is agreed between UK and Scottish governments, or a legal advisory referendum is voted through at Holyrood, then the EU will be asked to state the obvious: that if it becomes an independent European state, Scotland can apply to join the EU.
At the same time, there also needs to be understanding that the EU and its member states are all watching the UK’s constitutional politics closely while treading very carefully not to be seen to take sides in a third country’s debates. Though accession is a technical process – aligning with EU laws, meeting deficit criteria, establishing an EU border towards the rest of the UK and so on – it is also a highly political process.
This is where developing strong European relations is both beneficial to Scotland today as a European country that benefits in a myriad of ways – trade, migration, culture, education, cooperation on climate change and human rights – from its interaction with EU countries, and beneficial to any future accession bid (and making the EU argument during an independence referendum).
Both the Brexit vote itself and the most recent elections have contributed to greater understanding and awareness across the EU of Scotland’s constitutional debate and to sympathy for Scotland’s position. It is in Scotland’s interests both in its current position outside the EU and as a potential future EU member state to show it is a serious, strategic, progressive European country and ally.
The Scottish government has, of course, already done a lot to promote its European relations – including with offices, ‘hubs’, in Brussels, Dublin, Berlin, Paris – and with low-key but persistent para-diplomacy activity. This now needs to step up further. The SNP manifesto committed to opening new hubs in both a Nordic and a Baltic country which is positive. An Ireland-Scotland bilateral relations report was published at the end of last year. There is talk of becoming an observer at the Nordic Council.
But it will be important to develop stronger relations beyond Scotland’s neighbourhood. It is notable how EU member states have been reconsidering their own alliances across the EU in the wake of Brexit and reaching out beyond their nearest neighbours and most obvious allies. The Scottish government should be looking south, as well, to member states such as Portugal or Greece, and too to the central and east European countries.
Much soft power is projected, too, by civil society and media not only by a country’s government. Universities, think tanks, business, unions, cultural bodies and more all contribute to Scotland’s relationships and reputation in the EU. The Scottish government cannot ‘own’ such independent activities but needs to be well aware of them and, as appropriate, interact with these multifarious networks that continue to integrate Scotland with other European countries and are part of Scotland’s soft power.
It is time, too, for the Scottish government to publish serious and substantive analysis of how an independent Scotland could join the EU – the challenges, the benefits, the potential time-scale. Think tanks (including the Scottish Centre on European Relations) and academics have analysed these issues but the Scottish government needs to show its own cards here. This will allow more serious debate and discussion – including on some of the uncertainties such as how long a transition an independent Scotland might need out of the UK, and how the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement may need amending as soon as Scotland became independent and so forth.
On the day the UK left the EU – 31st January 2020 – Nicola Sturgeon made a speech promising a series of ‘New Scotland’ policy papers. These have not been forthcoming – unsurprising in the face of the pandemic. But now building on the debates around EU accession in the election and the European media and political interest in these questions too, such substantive policy analysis, including on EU accession, needs to be published. Scotland’s European strategy and debate, already considerable, needs to step up a gear.